I've wanted to write a post for a while now about our challenges with finding a home church, but every time I start drafting one it doesn't come out right . . . it ends up sounding like I'm looking for perfection, or whining about how nothing fits my exact needs, or just complain-y about the whole process.
It's also difficult not to feel like I'm simply fueling the flames of my non-Christian friends. See? What hypocrites! Shouldn't they be accepting of and extending love to everyone? Isn't that kind of the point?
Ideally, maybe. But in actuality churches are made up of fallible people, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and worldview. And that means, like everything else, some are going to be more well-suited for one's particular season of life than others.
And for those of you that have been there—not feeling like you fit in, wondering if you truly belong in this community of believers—you know: it is hard. Being a Christian without a place to regularly go for fellowship and support can feel overwhelming. What makes it worse is when it appears (to outsiders) to be something that should be very simple.
|Agent A being baptized on Daddy's ship|
I stumbled upon a church last week while Google mapping something else . . . I wasn't really looking to try a new church, and this is a denomination I would not have previously considered, but the name caught my eye. Hubby was out to sea, so it was going to be just me and the Agents that weekend, and I figured I might as well check it out.
The part I thought looked the most promising (explained on the church website and later confirmed through an e-mail exchange with the family ministry coordinator) was that all three Agents could be together for a Montessori-style Sunday school class (win!) and children were encouraged to attend the service with their parents (i.e., no separate "children's church"). I was assured this congregation loved children and had plenty of them.
That is exactly what I had been looking for. Keeping the kids together, acceptance of children during worship, family friendly. My hopes were kind of elevated. Could this finally be it? The Agents and I (and our GPS) headed out on Sunday morning.
This should be the part where I say we went, we loved it, we were completely overwhelmed with joy, and we can't wait to go back.
Not so much.
The truth is I was a teensy bit—okay, a lot—misled. There are almost no kids at this church, unless they are just counting everyone under 18. Certainly not many young kids. And from my understanding, they, like many churches, encourage families that do have small children to utilize the nursery during the service.
The Sunday school does not have a mixed-age class for ages 3-7 as I had been told (maybe they used to do that?) but starts at kindergarten/first grade, and up to fifth grade is grouped together. Anyone younger is expected to go to the nursery. And everything is separate from the sanctuary . . . as in across the parking lot in a different building. So, the girls would be in one building, Agent A in another, and me mulling around . . . I don't know where? Actually, they tried to convince me to take Agent J to the nursery, too, because it is up to age five. Also, there is no Montessori-inspired anything. It is just a regular classroom. Epic. fail.
|Agent J's baptism (love the look on 2-year-old Agent E's face)|
So, now I am faced once again with this same sense of—for lack of a better word—guilt. Although it's not exactly guilt. It's more like. . . disappointment and discouragement.
This shouldn't be this hard. Clearly, this is my fault, because I can't get it together. I'm being too persnickety about the whole thing. I'm denying the Agents the experience of a church family, Sunday school fun, and learning about Jesus. Or maybe not. Why is it so difficult to find a church that welcomes whole families?
A little background:
I grew up going to Catholic church: baptized at two weeks, first communion, confirmation, catechism classes through high school, the works.
In college I started attending a Lutheran (ELCA flavor) church, interestingly at the suggestion of my agnostic ex-boyfriend's mother. (Now that's a post of its own right there.) Suffice it to say, I loved (love) the Lutheran church and felt very much at home there.
Fast forward just over a decade, and Hubby and I are married in a small but growing Lutheran church in Virginia. We later have the Senior Agents baptized there. We are members for the six plus years, and meet, among other good friends, both sets of the Senior Agents' godparents.
|Our wedding day, 10 years ago|
Then, let's just say Something Happens. The church is in a bit of a reshuffle, it's adding new members faster than it can keep up with, a new senior pastor is called that simply is not a good fit, and for many reasons it's just Not the Same. Around this time I'm considering preschools for Agent E. We make a conscious decision not to enroll her at our home church, and instead place her in a class at a small Methodist church just down the road from our home.
Now, to put it mildly, Agent E at three did not like change. At all. We (okay, I) fretted a bit over how she would deal with the transition to school, especially in an unfamiliar location. So, we decided that as a family we would start attending the church where she was enrolled. That way, it would become familiar to her prior to the school year starting, and it would be somewhere we went together as well, not just a place I dropped her off every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
Turned out Agent E loved school and we continued to attend services weekly. This worked out fine until we got orders to move overseas.
After we settled in Italy we attempted to find a new church home. Twice. First, at the chapel on base. This was your basic fail for many reasons beyond the scope of this post. Second was at a highly recommended church off base that conducted services in both English and Italian, and had basically equal numbers of American and Italian congregants. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the drive pretty much did us in. In theory, it shouldn't have taken more than 20, 25 minutes tops. In reality driving in Italy does not quite work that way. We gave up sometime before Agent A was born.
Back in the states (as of June 2012) we considered finding a new church once again. By now we were beginning our second year of homeschooling and I really wanted to find a nice church with a children's program/Sunday school the Senior Agents would enjoy. Partly because Agent E missed some elements of the "classroom" setting and partly because I was feeling inadequate when it came to teaching Bible lessons.
Of course, it wasn't just about them . . . I kind of missed going to church myself. Given our past experience, the first thing I did was head to the ELCA website to search for a congregation in our area. There are three.
One was just a bit too far for us to get too on a consistent basis, so we ruled that one out immediately.
A second we (the Senior Agents and I) visited during the week to chat with the church secretary and look around. However, I quickly realized the location gave me a bit of a creepsville feeling. Of course the area we live in is pretty safe overall, and it probably would have been fine, but I couldn't shake the weird feeling of I'm not sure I want to be here.
|Sweet Agent E on the day of her baptism|
We actually visited the third church multiple times. The Senior Agents started going to Sunday school and enjoyed it well enough. However (you knew that was coming, right?) we stopped going. It's a very small church with a mostly older congregation. The sanctuary is incredibly tiny and there is absolutely nowhere to take a slightly rambunctious toddler should the need arise. And, the need arose. Often.
(Side note: Maybe others don't have this experience, but I have quite frequently felt in the past that much lip service is given to the idea of "let the little children come" when in reality the novelty wears off about 15 minutes in. People (and churches) like to say they are open and accepting of children in the service, yet perhaps they are thinking of the seen but not heard variety. The Agents tend to be both seen and heard.)
(Another side note: Of course we don't just ignore the Agents if they are being totally disruptive. However, in a small church with no children's area/cry room/space of any kind in the back where you could still see/hear the service, our only option is to leave.)
Needless to say, that didn't work out. I began to think that maybe what we needed was a large, loud, dynamic church with separate programs for children and adults. That's exactly what we found.
This met our needs initially, or so it seemed. The girls enjoyed children's church (even though they were separated by age) and Agent A and I went into the auditorium-style, concert hall-ish service alone. (I tried introducing him to the nursery, but after two or three attempts it was clear he wanted no parts of it. In fact, he started telling me, I don't like toddler room. I stay Mommy. Don't make me go that toddler room.) But (there's always a but, isn't there?) ultimately it didn't work either.
Without getting into too much gory detail, I'll say that a lot of things began to unravel that did not mesh with our beliefs. A sermon here and there that made me twitchy, and not in a good way. Some off-hand comments overheard when picking up the girls from their respective rooms. The attitude displayed toward the youngest church members. (Hint: It was not respectful, to completely glaze over reality.) Discovering just how rampant nepotism ran within the church leadership. Suddenly, it felt just. so. wrong.
What to do? We simply stopped trying for several months until we decided on a whim to try the church I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Writing about it now I'm not sure what I was thinking.
And now I'm wondering if we're just going to give up. We're going to turn into those we believe in Jesus but we don't practice any organized religion people.
I really have no idea where to go from here. Perhaps back to the nice but small and quiet Lutheran church? (Now that I'm following the rabbit trail I've created here I'm realizing that's were we always end up anyway.) Or maybe just stop trying until we move again in another year? I just don't know.